Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
War and the Sermon on the Mount
by Thomas R. Thompson
May 26, 1999
The Sermon on the Mount poses difficult if not insoluble problems for Christians. It contains teachings by Jesus that are seemingly impossible to live by, and yet Jesus lived by those teachings. All those professing loyalty to Jesus are called to imitate the life He lived. Few would challenge that statement as being untrue. Yet one finds it difficult to harmonize the Sermon on the Mount, when living in a society with many interconnected relationships.
In the Sermon one gets a compassionate example at how one is to treat his enemies, while in other passages in the New Testament one sees governing authorities charged with doing whatever it takes to uphold peace in society. Paul tells us that God has ordained ministering authorities to restrain evil, and "to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." (Rom 13:4) This poses a problem. Is one to love those that do evil, or is wrath to be executed upon them?
The answer to this question has varied throughout the history of the church. It has been primarily answered in the following two ways:
- Non-Christians alone are bound to uphold the laws of the state, and Christians are then free to live by the standards in the Sermon.
- Christians working in state offices are bound to uphold the law of the state, and thus released from the injunctions in the Sermon.
The church through the centuries has agreed that the injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount are incompatible with the laws of the kingdoms of this world. What has not been agreed on is how to resolve these incompatibility. This essay will consider some of these incompatibilities, and how various Christian groups throughout history have attempted to handle them. To accomplish this, this essay will focus on the subject of war as a means to restrain evil. The Bible condemns wars motivated by greed and a lust for power. The scriptures are clear any actions based on such motives are wrong. What is not so clear from the scriptures is what the Christian's response should be to those leaders who are not protecting their citizens, but rather abusing hem. By taking a closer look at the Sermon on the Mount, some valuable insight to answering this question can be found. To do this, the relationship between the Old and New Testament will be considered first.
A Harmony between the Old and New Testament
To understand the relation of war to the Sermon, one must first consider the relationship between the Old and New Testament. In the New Testament Jesus taught to "bless them that curse you", while in the Old Testament God commands Saul "to utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites." (1 Sam 15:18) Can one simply say the Old Testament teaching here is to be ignored and replaced with the New Testament teaching? Some would say yes, but the answer is not that simple, since Jesus said He came to fulfil the Old Testament. "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." (Mat 5:17) Thus, the relationship between the Old and New Testament must first be established before any progress can be made concerning the injunctions in the Sermon.
The construction "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time... But I say unto you" is found six times in the Sermon on the Mount. Some say Jesus is contrasting His teachings with those of Moses. This view sees the laws of the Old Covenant put aside, and Jesus establishing a new set of laws, but this completely misses the point of Jesus's teaching. No one is able to live up to the Mosaic Law. It only holds men in bondage. Therefore to suggest that Jesus is increasing the demands of the Mosaic Law, is to bring men into even more bondage.
Harvey K. McArthur and the Anabaptists take this approach. McArthur goes into a detailed analysis of how he sees Jesus changing in some respect the teachings of the law on divorce, swearing, and retaliation. For example, McArthur says the Sermon on the Mount's injunction concerning oaths "is in conflict with the wide use of oaths presupposed in the Pentateuch, and in some context, actually required." The Anabaptist view takes this position even further, as can be seen by the following.At the beginning of His ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the phrase, "Ye have heard that it hath been said," or something similar, at lease six times, quoting various points of the Mosaic Law. He then gave a much more demanding law dealing with the heart of the issue. (Southeastern Mennonite Conference, Church and State Issues Related to Jury Duty, [n.p., July 1991])
Both interpretations miss the point of what Jesus is saying. Lloyd-Jones answers these false interpretations quite well when he says:God's law is absolute; it can never be changed, not even modified to the slightest extent... He has come, He tells us, rather to fulfil and to carry them out, and to give them a perfect obedience. There, we see the central claim which is made by our Lord. It is, in other words, that all the law and all the prophets point to Him, and will be fulfilled in Him down to the smallest detail. (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 2nd ed., [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971], vol. 1, 186-7.)
Thus to see Jesus as changing the Mosaic Law, or establishing a New Law is to miss how the Mosaic Law is fulfilled in the life of Christ. The Mosaic Law kept men in bondage. Any change to increase that Law, is to bring men into further bondage. It is therefore critical that one reject any hint of Jesus changing, modifying, or abrogating the Mosaic Law. Such a teaching is to put men under more bondage, when actually Christ came to set them free.
How then are Jesus's words, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time...But I say unto you" to be understood? It must first be observed this is not the formula Jesus used to quote scripture. He used "it is written."It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; (Mat 21:13)
But I say unto you, That Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him. (Mark 9:13)
Second, Jesus said, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy," but nowhere in the scriptures is it taught that one is to hate his enemy. Jesus is contrasting his teachings with the scribes' and Pharisees' perversion of the law. Jesus was correcting their false teachings concerning the law, then reestablished God's original purpose of the law. The Pharisees had invented all kinds of loop holes to excuse their wicked behavior. Their false interpretation of "love thy neighbor" is one example. In Luke we find a certain lawyer trying to excuse himself from the command to "love thy neighbor," by tempting Jesus with the question "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29) But Jesus strips him of all excuses when telling the parable of the "Good Samaritan."
Consider also the injunction in the Sermon concerning divorce.It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Mat 5:31-32)
The Pharisees were teaching a man could "put away his wife for every cause." (Mat 19:3) They confused God allowing divorce in order to restrain evil, and steer His stiffnecked people back to the divine standard, with ordained permission to divorce as they pleased. Permission to divorce was never God's divine standard. Jesus was just restating in the Sermon, God's original design from the beginning. He says:Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. (Mat 19:8)
This relationship between the Old and New Testament that Jesus revealed is helpful in understanding the relation between war in the Old Testament and loving one's enemy in the New Testament. Wars were used by God to restrain evil and preserve peace, and He is still using wars for that purpose today.But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he [a ruler] beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (Rom 13:4)
It is easy to observe the teachings in the New Testament have a very different emphasis than the Old Testament. But one must not conclude that a different emphasis is the same as a different teaching. Loraine Boettner summarizes this point well.When rightly understood the two Testaments are supplementary, not contradictory. (Loraine Boettner, The Christian Attitude Toward War, [New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1985], 18-9.)
The New Testament emphasizes the law of God being fulfilled through love in many places, but the same is found in the Old Testament.Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Lev 19:18)
If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee. (Prov 25:21-22)
The New Testament writers were clear to point out they were not establishing new doctrine. They used the Old Testament to testify that their teachings were in harmony with what God had already revealed. To them the law and the prophets were "a shadow of good things to come." (Heb 10:1)
Therefore, one must not put the Old and New Testament in competition with one another when interpreting scripture. If one finds some teaching in the Old Testament that appears to contradict a New Testament teaching and gives the New Testament priority, he has essentially stated the Old Testament is of little use to determine doctrine. This is to teach doctrine is established by the New Testament alone, and the Old Testament is useful only if it strengthens a New Testament teaching. Therefore, the use of the Old Testament to develop doctrine is at stake as one determines his understanding of war and the Sermon on the Mount. Although the focus of this essay is the relation between war and the Sermon on the Mount, one's conclusion yields a conclusion concerning the Old Testament as well.
At this point, it will be helpful to consider how fellow Christians in the past have attempted to harmonize war and the Sermon on the Mount. To do this, the views of the early church fathers, Anabaptists, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther will be analyzed.
The Early Church Fathers (Pre-Augustine)
When studying the beginnings of the church, one finds many suffering much persecution. The religious leaders during the time of Jesus could not tolerate His teachings, and put him death. The disciples faced the same opposition. Most of them were put to death for their teachings as well. Considering this hostile environment, few if any were considering holding a position in government, or taking part in the military.
The writings of the early church fathers can be characterized by a clear separation between the kingdom of God, and the kingdoms of the world. This is illustrated in the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) which is one of the earliest post-biblical writings. This short writing describes two ways of living, the way of life, and the way of death. Concerning the way of life, the Didache teaches the following.Bless those that curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those that persecute you. For what credit is it to you if you love those that love you? ([unknown], Didache, [n.p., n.d.], ch.1.)
My child, be not a grumbler, for this leads to blasphemy, nor stubborn, nor a thinker of evil, for from all these are blasphemies engendered, but be thou "meek, for the meek shall inherit the earth." (Didache, ch. 3.)
In The Apostolic Tradition written around A.D. 217 by St. Hippolytus one finds what is considered the rites and practices of the early church. A specific injunction is found in part 2.19 against a Christian serving as a soldier.If a catechumen or a baptized Christian wishes to become a soldier, let him be cast out. For he has despised God. (Gregory Dix, The Treatise on The Apostolic Tradition of St Hippolytus of Rome, 3rd rev, [London: Alban Press, 1937], 26-7)
Similar words are found in the writings of Tertullian.But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament [i.e. a military oath], the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters-God and Caesar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? (Tertullian [pseud.], On Idolatry, trans. Rev. S. Thelwall, [n.p., n.d.], ch. 19.)
Tertullian (c.160-c.230) and Hippolytus both wrote around the same time and are good indicators of the early church's understanding of Jesus teachings. The writings of these early believers also contain firm defences concerning Jesus fulfilling the law and the prophets, instead of introducing new doctrine. Heretics during this time saw a sharp contrast between the teachings of the Old Testament and the teachings introduced by Jesus. To them the God of the Old Testament was a mean and wrathful god, and Jesus came to overthrow that god and set up a new standard for living. Tertullian wrote what some consider an exhaustive five book defense of the harmony between the Old and New Testament. Consider the strength of Tertullian's conviction.This purpose of the law, which it was difficult to understand, Christ, as the Lord of the Sabbath and of the law, and of all the dispensations of the Father, both revealed and made intelligible, when He commanded that "the other cheek should be offered (to the smiter)," in order that He might the more effectually extinguish all reprisals of an injury, which the law had wished to prevent by the method of retaliation, (and) which most certainly revelation had manifestly restricted, both by prohibiting the memory of the wrong, and referring the vengeance thereof to God. Thus, whatever (new provision) Christ introduced, He did it not in opposition to the law, but rather in furtherance of it, without at all impairing the prescription of the Creator. (Tertullian [pseud.], The Five Books Against Marcion, trans. Dr. Holmes, [n.p., n.d.], bk. 4, ch. 16.) [emphasis mine]
Though the early church fathers defended with zeal the continuation of the law and the prophets in the teachings of Jesus, their teachings do not appear to present a continuation of God's use of war to defend and protect. Their writings assume that Christians are not to be involved with such activities, but do not state clearly the implication of this upon Jesus fulfilling the law and the prophets. That is, if Christians are not to be involved with war, what is the fulfillment of this in Christ. The early Church was mostly silent concerning this relationship. They certainly have reasons and principles, but no comprehensive teaching to explain the transition of war from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. The Anabaptist view may fill this gap 1500 years later.
Comparing the teachings of the early church with the Anabaptists, a major similarity is found. Both approach the scriptures literally. Consider a typical Anabaptist interpretation of the following:Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: (Mat 5:43-45)
The Anabaptist view teaches that Christ commands one to love his enemies, and do good to them. The view tries to intimidate objections by using rhetorical questions like:How is it that war, even if for just purposes does not violate that command?
How is it that one can reconcile the Prince of Peace instructing his followers to take up swords?
Can one really love their enemy while shooting at them?
If God himself proclaims that Jesus is His beloved Son and says "hear ye him," (Mat 17:5) why are excuses being made to not listen to Him?
Such rhetorical questions are powerful. It must be must readily admit he Prince of Peace calls none to use violence. Menno Simons represents this position well in his writing.Behold, beloved friends and brethren, by these and other Scriptures we are taught and warned not to take up the literal sword, nor ever to give our consent thereto (excepting the ordinary sword of the magistrate when it must be used), but to take up the two-edged, powerful, sharp sword of the Spirit, which goes forth from the mouth of God, namely, the Word of God. (Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, tr. Leonard Verduin, [Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956], 423-4)
The Anabaptist view is centered around two kingdoms, with a different set of rules for each kingdom. This view is analogous to a person living in a foreign country. A citizen of the United States living in Canada is not allowed to vote, or hold certain positions in the Canadian government. The Anabaptist view uses this illustration to support its two kingdom view. Consider an excerpt from some Anabaptist literature.In Hebrews 11:13-16 we clearly see that the child of God has a heavenly country and therefore a heavenly citizenship which demands his first allegiance. Any nation on earth in which he dwells must realize that he is there as an alien, and that, although he will endeavor to be subject to their will where possible, he cannot be expected to participate in their affairs nor compromise his heavenly citizenship. (Paul Horst, Nonresistance and Nonparticipation in Civil Government [tract], [Crockett: Rod and Staff Publishers, Inc., n.d.], 2)
This view considers Christians as ambassadors of a heavenly country that are proclaiming the message of salvation. As ambassadors they are to give obedience and honor to the government where they live, but cannot be a part of a government's administration of justice. The heavenly ambassador is to feed and give drink to his enemies. He is to overcome evil with good. However it is the responsibility of the governments to punish and restrain evil doers, not the church.
The Bible certainly teachings a separation between the institution of the church and government, but the Bible does not teach the members of the two groups are separate. In fact, when considering the complex relations of a society, trying to separate the two becomes impossible. For example, when the Anabaptist view considers the injunction "swear not at all" [Mat 5:34] it says the injunction requires one to abstain from taking oaths in a court of law, or in any other circumstance. Menno Simons explains this.It should be observed that Christ Jesus does not in the New Testament point His disciples to the Law in regard to the matter of swearing--the dispensation of imperfectness which allowed swearing, but He points us now from the Law to yea and nay, as to the dispensation of perfectness, saying, Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time (that is, to the fathers under the law by Moses). (Simons, 518.)
Now the key problem with this view surfaces. This teaching of a "dispensation of imperfectness" and "dispensation of perfectness" requires an abrogation of the Mosaic Law. Those holding this position may say Jesus fulfilled the Mosaic Law by abrogating it, but such a position goes against Jesus's words "I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." A more reasonable approach at harmonizing the specific injunction "swear not at all," with "I am not come to destroy" is suggested by Lloyd-Jones. He notes the perverse act of oath taking that was adopted by the Pharisees. They would say, "if one took an oath by the temple, that was not binding; but if you took an oath by the gold of the temple, that was binding." Lloyd-Jones suggests oaths were ordained by God in the Old Testament to bridle man's proneness to lying, and Jesus here is correcting the corruption of that teaching.
Certainly Christians are to be ambassadors for a heavenly country, but to limit their function to only this is to overly restrict their ordained purposes. In the Sermon Jesus says Christians are to be the "salt of the earth." Lloyd-Jones explains this metaphor of a Christian well. He says:The principle function of salt is to preserve and to act as an antiseptic. Take, for instance, a piece of meat. There are certain germs on its surface, perhaps in its very substance, which have been derived from the animal, or from the atmosphere, and there is the danger of it becoming putrid. The business of the salt which is rubbed into the meat is to preserve it against those agencies that are tending to its putrefaction. (Lloyd-Jones, vol. 1, 153.)
The heavenly ambassadors not only represent their king, but also are to function in society in a way to keep it from rotting and destroying itself. While this preserving influence may take many forms, the key point is that the salt must come into contact with rottenness to preserve it. If salt is stored in a jar with other salt, it is not performing its preserving function. Lloyd-Jones has a good response to the Anabaptist view, though he does not refer to the view explicitly by name.There are those who say, 'Yes, you are quite right, it is not the business of the Church to intervene in political, economic or social conditions. What I say is that the Christian should have nothing whatsoever to do with these things; the Christian must not register his vote, he must have nothing to do in the control of affairs and society.' That, it seems to me is an equal fallacy... Think also of William Wilberforce and all that he did with regard to the abolition of slavery. As Christians we are citizens of a country, and it is our business to play our part as citizens, and thereby act as salt indirectly in innumerable respects. (Lloyd-Jones, vol. 1, 155.)
The major weakness with the Anabaptist view is the lack of harmony between the Old and New Testament. It ignores God's increasing revelation from the law and the prophets to Christ. The New Testament should be view as a commentary on the Old Testament, as opposed to something separate from it. Lloyd-Jones is quite accurate when he quotes St. Augustine saying. "The New Testament is latent in the Old Testament and the Old Testament is patent in the New Testament." (Lloyd-Jones, vol. 1, 188.)
This is the same approach Jesus and the New Testament writers took. Jesus says, "I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." Paul establishes the doctrine of justification by faith alone not by saying "here is a new teaching from God." He shows it is the doctrine from the beginning, and further elaborates the doctrine's fulfillment in Christ. Any other view makes God appear as if He is experimenting to find the right doctrine that men will receive and be ruled by. The writer of Hebrews expresses this harmony well.God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; (Heb 1:1-2)
In addition to separating the Old Testament from the New Testament, the Anabaptist view also poses serious moral problems. Consider the case of one witnessing violence done to some citizen. Is one really to withhold testifying against such violence on grounds it is forbidden by Christ as the Anabaptist view teaches? Certainly Christ will not be well pleased by such a response.
To understand the full weight of this moral problem, one should consider the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although a Lutheran pastor, his application of the Sermon on the Mount is similar to the Anabaptist view. Bonhoeffer witnesses the terrible tortures and deaths Adolph Hitler carried out against the Jews. He could not conceive Christ forbidding a Christian aiding in removing such a man from office, even if force would be needed.
Bonhoeffer's approach to the Sermon on the Mount focuses on imitating Christ. He uses the Sermon to determine characteristics about Jesus's life, and presents them as the model for a Christian's life. Concerning the injunction on non-resistance, (Matt 5:38-42) Bonhoeffer reminds Christians how Jesus overcame evil. Jesus overcame evil not by the sword, but by suffering through it. This is the same pattern those imitating Christ are to live by. Bonhoeffer says:He is the one who vanquished evil through suffering. It looked as though evil had triumphed on the cross, but the real victory belonged to Jesus. And the cross is the only justification for the precept of non-violence, for it alone can kindle a faith in the victory over evil which will enable men to obey that precept. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, [New York: Touchstone, 1995], 144.)
Just like the Anabaptist view, Bonhoeffer sees no justifiable cause where a Christian could ever participate in a war. To further show this teaching is not unique to him, he appeals to the teachings of the early church. He notes they taught certain jobs were incompatible with the one imitating Christ. Jobs like a soldier, policeman, and judge (Bonhoeffer, 266.) all had to be renounced if one wanted to be baptized. Bonhoeffer rules out every circumstance one might bring for making allowances for a Christians participation in a war. He says,The worse the evil, the readier must the Christian be to suffer; he must let the evil person fall into Jesus's hands. (Bonhoeffer, 142.)
Thus Bonhoeffer sets the stage for the ultimate challenge to his doctrine. Within a few years of writing these words, his doctrine is challenged by the evil regime of Hitler. Would Bonhoeffer be willing to suffer for this "worse evil", and wait for this evil person to be judged by Jesus? No! With genocide sweeping across Europe, the thought of planning an assassination on Hitler became a moral imperative to Bonhoeffer, rather than a murderous act. Murders are motivated by revenge and hatred. Bonhoeffer's plan was motivated by love and compassion. What caused this change in Bonhoeffer? Just a few years earlier he would have resisted a draft into the armed services for his beliefs, which meant he would be killed, since the Natzis did not accept conscientious objectors. As retold by those close to Bonhoeffer, the current issues of the day were too serious for him to not resist Hitler is a physical way. His friends cite two reasons for this change. First, the actions of the state had become horrendous. The deportation of the Jews was now taking place on a massive scale, and second, many of his friends had seen the inside of the concentration camps and their full horror was beginning to emerge to him. (Eberhard Bethge, Ranata Bethge and Christian Gremmels, Hanged on a Twisted Cross, [Worcester: Vision Video, 1996].)
Bonhoeffer never convinced himself that planning the assassination of Hitler could be justified. He still believed violence was morally indefensible, but in the face of death camps his view of inaction was to commit spiritual suicide. His friends convey his new experiential doctrinal position concerning war. Bonhoeffer decided he must risk God's judgement for his own actions that others might live. The Jews must be rescued from the death camps. Bonhoeffer's actions must be understood as an act of repentance. [Bethge, Hanged on a Twisted Cross]
Bonhoeffer's experience provides valuable incite for Christians who are considering the issue of war. Whatever objection one may propose for Christians not risking their lives to protect the innocent, Bonhoeffer stands as one willing to risk the judgement of God to end a holocaust of murders. Bonhoeffer's motivation was not for power or revenge as he planned to remove a "cancer" destroying the world, but was willing to sacrifice his life that many would see life. To this one can speculate after Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Natzis, Jesus stood to receive him saying, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."
Bonhoeffer, in the face of horrendous crimes, found himself supporting war under certain conditions. What Bonhoeffer once would have died to oppose, he found himself supporting even at the expense of his life. The position Bonhoeffer finally arrived at is not new to the twentieth century. This was taught by Martin Luther and others during the reformation, and is still popular today.
Martin Luther and the Two Realms
When considering the Sermon on the Mount, the issue of a Christian's relation to government naturally arises. The Anabaptists and the Early Church Fathers approached the problem by forbidding Christians to be involved in many, or all areas of government. Luther approached the problem differently. He did not teach the restriction of Christians from holding offices in government. Luther taught a distinction must be made between the various relationships a Christian holds. Luther split all human activities as either belonging to the spiritual realm or to secular realm. Activities that fall into the category of the spiritual realm are regulated by the Sermon on the Mount, and those activities that are secular are regulated by the state.
When dealing with the issue of "resist not evil," Luther notes nearly all theologians "have failed to distinguish properly between the secular and the spiritual, between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world." When a Christian is serving as a prince or judge, Luther notes he does not have to ask Christ what his duty is.You do not have to ask Christ about your duty. Ask the imperial or the territorial law. It will soon tell you your duty toward your inferiors as their protector. ...A Christian should not resist any evil; but within the limits of his office, a secular person should oppose every evil. (Harvey K. McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount, [New York: Harpers, 1960], 119.]
Lloyd-Jones agrees with Luther, but states the principle differently. Lloyd-Jones notes the teaching "an eye for an eye" was given to judges. The Pharisees had taken what was ordained for the courts into their own hands. It is to this perversion that Christ is dealing with. He is not setting up a new standard for Christians serving in law enforcement roles. Lloyd-Jones says:The most important thing is that this enactment was not given to the individual, but rather to the judges who were responsible for law and order amongst the individuals. ...It was the judges who were to see to it that it was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and no more. The legislation was for them, not for the private individuals. (Lloyd-Jones, vol. 1, 272.)
Lloyd-Jones then continues this though to the area of war and the Sermon on the Mount.Now here, I would repeat, our Lord's teaching concerns the behavior of the Christian in his personal relationships only; indeed, in this saying, the Christian's relationship to the State is not even considered or mentioned. Here we have nothing but the reaction of the Christian as an individual to the things that are done to him personally. With regard to the Christian's relationship to the State and his general relationships, there is ample teaching in the Scriptures. If you are anxious about your relationship to the State or your attitude as a citizen do not stay with the Sermon on the Mount. Rather go on to other chapters that deal specifically with that subject, such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 so that if I, as a young man, am considering my duty to the State in the matter of going into the Forces, I do not find the answer here. I must look for it elsewhere. This is only concerned about my personal relationships. And yet how often, when a man's duty towards the State is being considered, this passage is quoted. I suggest it has nothing whatsoever to do with it. (Lloyd-Jones, vol. 1, 277.)
Lloyd-Jones's comments summarize the heart of the Two Realms view as it is called by Harvey K. McArthur. The Sermon on the Mount is dealing with personal relationships. One must look somewhere else for teachings concerning the Christian's relation to the state. Both Luther and Lloyd-Jones make some valid observations concerning the Sermon. Jesus is dealing with personal relationships, He does not deal with group relationships and all their complex interactions.
The weakness of this Two Realms view is that it frees the secular realm from the control of God. Luther overstates his position when he says a person serving as prince or judge is to ask government his duty instead of Christ. However, the value of this view is its recognizing the importance of Christians serving as a preserving influence on societies rotting away. If societies were left ruled by people devoid of morals and godly convictions, chaos would reign instead of peace. John Stott recognizes the same strength and weakness of Luther's Two Realms view.Scripture does not allow us to set the two kingdoms over against each other in such total contrast, as if the church were Christ's sphere ruled by love and the state the emperor's rule by justice. For Jesus Christ has universal authority, and no sphere may be excluded from his rule. Further, the state's administration of justice needs to be tempered with love, while in the church love has sometimes to be expressed in terms of discipline. Jesus himself spoke of the painful necessity of excommunicating an obstinate and unrepentant offender. Nevertheless, I think Luther's distinction between "person" and "office," or, as we might say, between individual and institution, holds. (John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, rev. ed. of: Christian counter-culture, [Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978], 113.)
At this point, the various uses of the Sermon on the Mount to support or oppose war have been considered. By considering the strengths and weakness of these arguments, one should be able to conclude a Biblical attitude toward Christians participating in the restraint of evil.
What Can be Concluded?No slick or easy answer either for or against war seems possible, although all Christians will surely agree that in its very nature war is brutalizing and horrible (Stott, 111.)
John Stott correctly recognizes the problem of reconciling war with the teachings in the New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount. The New Testament is clear that governments are ordained to restrain evil, and to use force if necessary.for he [a ruler] is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (Rom 13:4)
What is not explicitly clear, is whether Christians are to be a part of the group which is executing wrath on the evil doers. Those holding the Anabaptist view teach the Bible implies Christians are not to be involved with certain government positions. Those holding the Two Realms view teach the Bible implies Christian involvement. When one considers the strengths and weaknesses of each position, it is the Two Realms view that handles most reasonably the entirety of the scriptures.
The Anabaptist view does not in a reasonable sense deal with God's continual revelation. The view teaches God established one set of standards for those living under the Old Covenant, and a new set of standards for those living under the New Covenant. The Anabaptist view characterizes the Old Covenant as a dispensation of justice, and the New Covenant as a dispensation of mercy, but such a harsh division is not taught in the scriptures. God's patience in the Old Testament is clearly shown. Jonah knew God was gracious, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, (Jonah 4:2) and on the other hand in the New Testament many clear reference are made to Jesus judging the world one day. (John 5:22) Thus trying to make a clear distinction between the Old and New Testament is to miss the Old Testament's foreshadows of the New Testament. Viewing the Old and New covenants as separate dispensations, disconnects the Old from the New. Whereas the Old should be viewed as a seed planted, nourished, growing, and then blossoming and bearing fruit in the New. To separate that continuous process into discontinuous parts, is to destroy the unity of its development. The entire process has the end goal of bearing fruit. The various phases cannot be separated. Attempting to do so is to develop doctrine from the perspective of the fruit alone, and relegate doctrine concerning the "tree" as second class, or irrelevant. This is what the Anabaptist view does. It considers the "fruit" (New Testament) alone, and discards the "tree" (Old Testament). This cannot be what Jesus meant by "I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." (Matt 5:17)
The Anabaptist view essentially ignores scriptures that are not expedient to its cause. Such an approach lacks maturity and is not worthy of serious consideration. This view sacrifices the Old Testament types (like offerings, sacrifices, and the tabernacle) instead of finding a harmony of Jesus's injunctions concerning divorce, swearing, and retaliation with the Old Testament. Such an approach is to "throw the baby out with the bath water." The view appears sound from a distance, but upon closer inspection one notices it has no foundation. When the "rain" and the "floods" of God's increasing revelation come, the view is swept away. For this reason the Anabaptist view must be rejected. In addition to this, Bonhoeffer dismisses the Anabaptist view on moral grounds. He found the position to be morally indefensible when considering the depravity of some leaders. Watching millions tortured was more than Bonhoeffer's interpretation could withstand. One wonders if Bonhoeffer changed his position based on numbers alone, or he concluded Christians should be involved in resisting evil. If his position changed based on numbers, he would then have further problems quantifying how many is too many.
An aspect of the Anabaptist view often neglected, is that it teaches God has a double standard. The Anabaptist view acknowledges God ordaining the state to execute justice, but teaches His people are only to execute mercy. This is to say, God only allows sinners to use the "sword", but not His people. If in God's revealed will it is a sin for Christians to be involved in executing justice, than it must be a sin for any other class of people to do the same. All will be judged in the final day by one standard. Thus, by determining a certain standard for one class of people, it must needs be the same standard for all. This then brings one to Leo Tolstoy's erroneous interpretation of saying true Christianity means the destroying of the state. A getting rid of all armies, police, judges, etc. Therefore, since the Anabaptist view is not able to handle basic principles that its interpretation rests on, one must turn elsewhere for a reasonable interpretation.
A viable alternative to the Anabaptist view is the Two Realms view. As already noted, this view taken in a strict sense has the major problem of the secular realm being released from the rule of God. But when one considers some of the simple modifications that Stott proposes, this view handles nicely the scriptures taken as a whole. Even considering the merits of this position, and its reasonable harmonizing of the scriptures, one may still be unsure whether a Christian can serve in a war. This dilemma cannot be adequately resolved, but one must make a decision. War is a real issue facing Christians today and they do not have the luxury of being indecisive. A decision must be made. To this decision, one has strong reason to conclude as Bonhoeffer did, Christians must do whatever is in their power to deliver the innocent from the "death camps."
This essay was written by Thomas R. Thompson on May 26, 1999, as part of the requirements for the Sermon on the Mount class that he took through Reformed Theological (www.rts.edu) Seminary via their long distance education program. His hope is that this essay is as much a blessing to you reading it as the blessing he received in writing it.